Star Trek Into Dumbness
The clumsy politics of Captain Kirk's latest adventure.
Subtlety is a dish best served cold, as the Klingons would say if they had a word for subtlety. But there is nothing subtle about the 9/11 allegories in Star Trek Into Darkness, the latest Trek movie to hit the silver screen. Wars of choice, militaristic leaders, drone strikes, targeted assassinations — the analogies could not have been more obvious if Donald Rumsfeld had been cast as the chief villain.
Given Star Trek‘s track record, it was inevitable that Captain James Tiberius Kirk would boldly go into a storyline based on the Global War on Terror. In the 50 years since the original series debuted in 1966, Star Trek has carved a niche in the cultural pantheon by delving into the political and social questions of the day. In the 1960s, Trek tackled the Cold War, the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon, Vietnam, discontented youth, and racism in America.
Like 2009’s Star Trek — the first film with the current cast — Into Darkness features Kirk leading an Enterprise crew that looks too young to order Romulan ale and behaves like their parents need to take away the keys to their starship. The premise is that London has been blown up by Khan Noonien Singh, a revamped version of one of the original series’ iconic villains, who has been awakened out of cryogenic stasis by a rogue, militaristic Federation admiral determined to use his genetically engineered super-intelligence to design superweapons and thus protect the Federation from potential alien threats. But Khan also goes rogue, and Kirk and the Brat Pack Enterprise are sent to kill the fugitive in his hideout on the Klingon homeworld.
What ensues is an action-packed, special effects bonanza with so many plot holes that the script must have been hit by a salvo of photon torpedoes and political allegories that multiply like tribbles in heat. We have blowback in the form of Khan, who like the Taliban and their one-time American sponsors, turns on his would-be benefactor. We have targeted assassination in the form of photon torpedoes that work like wingless Predator drones, even if they look like giant cough drops. There is preventative war in the form of the bellicose Adm. Alexander Marcus, who appears to have been genetically engineered from the DNA of Dick Cheney and Curtis LeMay. Naturally, the rogue admiral’s space dreadnought is crewed by private contractors. The only touch the scriptwriters missed was not having the contractors wear Blackwater logos on their uniforms.
As for Khan, he has been reimagined in a way that would make his original portrayer, Ricardo Montalban, turn over in his Corinthian-leather grave. Bad enough that the Sikh superman is now played by a blue-eyed British actor named Benedict Cumberbatch, who talks like Masterpiece Theater and looks about as Southwest Asian as Salina the Viking Queen. Montalban’s original Khan was arrogant and ruthless, but he had an urbane charm and the wounded dignity of a talented man who could not accept anything less than absolute success ("Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven"). Even if he didn’t win affection, he commanded respect. However, the new Khan has no charm. He is pure arrogance, coldness, and efficiency, like a Wall Street financier catapulted into the future in search of new conquests.
The tragedy of the new Trek is that it eagerly embraces the form but not the substance of Star Trek. The ranks of failed science-fiction shows are legion, but one reason that Star Trek is still around after a half-century is that it was comfortable with a certain level of moral complexity. At one point or another, the Klingons, Romulans, rogue starship captains, and other baddies are given a chance to explain their actions. And our heroes were sometimes forced by circumstances to bend the law and morality.
In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the darkest and best of the post-1960s shows, the characters in the classic episode "In the Pale Moonlight" engage in assassination, sabotage, murder, and other actions that should send them to a prison planet for life. But the context is that there is a desperate war between the Federation and the ruthless Dominion Empire, and the question of whether the ends justify the means is portrayed as a difficult one.
There is no such nuance in Into Darkness. The evil Federation admiral gets a couple of throwaway lines to mumble about preparing for threats "out there." Scotty laments that he thought Starfleet was meant for exploration rather than war (evidently the Enterprise‘s chief engineer didn’t know he carried phasers). Yet there are also references to aggressive Klingon attacks on the Federation, and the masked, armored Klingons that Kirk encounters on Kronos don’t look like advocates of peaceful coexistence. The message of the movie is that we are the terrorists, and terrorism is what we bring upon ourselves. But it doesn’t address the other side of the issue, which is that maybe a little paranoia is warranted when the Klingon Empire is your neighbor.
Perhaps we should be so lucky as to have a bunch of crazy generals running the Pentagon, CIA, and NSA, for then we could dismiss them as mere nuts. But the dilemma we face is that our government says it needs to monitor our phone calls and make us take off our shoes at airports for our own good. Many of us don’t want to them to do this, but nor do we want to be blown up by terrorists.
What is the proper balance between security versus freedom? Perhaps not even a supergenius on the level of Khan Noonien Singh could come up with the answer.